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Lake Ontario April prey fish survey and Alewife assessment, 2021

October 1, 2021

The Lake Ontario April bottom trawl survey and Alewife, Alosa psuedoharengus population assessment are conducted annually to track prey fish community status and aid management decisions related to predator-prey balance. No survey was conducted in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The 2021 survey included 248 bottom trawls in both U.S. and Canadian waters, from March 30 - May 7 in the main lake and embayment regions, at depths ranging from 5 – 221 m (16 - 729 ft). The survey captured 947,102 fish, from 30 species with a total weight of 9,191 kg (20,220 lbs). Alewife were 89.2% of the catch by number while Rainbow Smelt, Osmerus mordax, Round Goby Neogobius melanostomus, and Deepwater Sculpin Myoxocephalus thompsonii comprised 5.6, 2.3, and 1.7% of the catch, respectively. Rainbow Smelt biomass in 2021 was among the highest values observed since 1997, especially in U.S. waters. The biomass index for Cisco, Coregonus artedii also increased, primarily due to catches and greater survey effort in the Bay of Quinte. Threespine stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatus and Emerald Shiner, Notropis atherinoides biomasses remain low. No Bloater, Coregonus hoyi were captured during the 2021 survey.

In 2021, the lake-wide Alewife biomass index increased substantially from 2019 due to the presence of an exceptionally high catch of age-1 Alewife (2020 year class). The biomass index of adult Alewife (age-2 and up) declined slightly since 2019, which was expected since Alewife reproduction was generally below average from 2016 to 2019. Expanding the survey spatial extent from U.S. waters to a lake-wide survey in 2016 has improved our ability to estimate Alewife survival and has provided more accurate estimates of Lake Ontario Alewife biomass and density. Simulation modeling based on recent estimates of survival, growth, and reproduction suggests the adult Alewife biomass will likely increase in 2022 and 2023.

As part of a continued effort to improve prey fish surveys, we employed hydroacoustic sampling during the 2021 April trawl survey to estimate fish densities in open-water, pelagic habitats not sampled by the bottom trawl. We found fish density, in waters above the trawl headline depth (3m off bottom to surface), were approximately ~100 times lower than pelagic prey fish densities from bottom trawls. These results support the idea that at this time of year, when the warmest water is on the lake bottom, Alewife and most other prey fish primarily inhabit deep, near bottom regions and can be effectively sampled with bottom trawls. We were not able to apportion acoustics targets to species, however the low mean target strength (-43 decibels, dB) suggested these were small fishes (e.g., 100 mm). The greatest hydroacoustics densities were found near the Niagara River confluence and future surveys may use midwater trawls to determine which species these were and continue to improve this multi-agency survey.

Publication Year 2021
Title Lake Ontario April prey fish survey and Alewife assessment, 2021
Authors Brian C. Weidel, Scott P. Minihkeim, Jeremy Holden, Jessica Goretzke, Michael Connerton
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Index ID 70227507
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Great Lakes Science Center